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A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
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Controversies in politics arise from many sources, but the conflicts that endure for generations or centuries show a remarkably consistent pattern. In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the "constrained" vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the "unconstrained" vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. He describes how these two radically opposed views have manifested themselves in the political controversies of the past two centuries, including such contemporary issues as welfare reform, social justice, and crime. Updated to include sweeping political changes since its first publication in 1987, this revised edition of A Conflict of Visions offers a convincing case that ethical and policy disputes circle around the disparity between both outlooks.

Customer Reviews:

  • Lucid explanation why people consistently differ
    Have you ever noticed that people who are conservative differ with peope who are liberal in just about every issue? For example, someone who favors a strong national defense will often be against affirmative action and for cuts in social spending. Sowell attributes this to different visions. The "constrained vision" sees humankind operating under certain constrainst such as Adam Smith's invisible hand. Thus, someone with a constrained vision will be against governmental intervention in economic affairs. Additionally, there are constraints of human nature and therefore, a strong national defense is the best way to prevent war. As to the justice system, the constrained vision sees clear rules, consistently enforced, to be the surest way to justice. In short, the constrained vision seeks just procedures and laws, and does not concern itself with results. The constrained vision seeks a "strict constructionist" interpretation of the Constitution.

    The "unconstrained vision" sees, in humankind, unlimited possibilities. Usually, the faith in these possibilities is placed in a ruling elite. Therefore, a liberal will support a government deciding what is best for us and seeking just results at the expense of just procedures. If everyone receives equal treatment but the results favor one class over another, the unconstrained vision seeks to substitute the judgment of the ruling elite over the collective wisdom of those who framed our Constitution and other procedures. As to national defense, the unconstrained vision has confidence that reason and good will can prevail and that strong military dterrence is, therefore, unnecessary.

    Of course, the unconstrained vision is not necessarily restricted to liberalism. Indeed under Nazism there was certainly a strong element of an unconstrained vision. True, there were contstraints of extreme nationalism and rascism but, the dictators under Nazism & fascism had the discretion to ssek the ends they determined to be right and certainly, they had the discretion to control and dictate the means to these ends.

    Visions can, and sometimes do change. For example, former Communists have recanted and adopted a very different vision. Also, the two visions are not 100 percent pure. There is a degree of hybridism. However,, social theories are not as readily able to be proven scientifically by experiment as are theories in the applied sciences. Therefore, evidence is interpreted and often made to support our own visions. All in all, Sowell's analysis explains why people hold the views they do....more info

  • A surprisingly even-handed assessment
    When I started reading this book, I was not familiar with the author at all. I found out about this book as a result of some interesting references to the work in another book, The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker. After I started the book I began searching out information about the author whereby I was directed to his columns on political topics. Needless to say, I found his columns to be pure garbage. I often couldn't read past the first few paragraphs due to his obvious ability to lie and sham to serve his preordained opinion. Even people with much less intelligence than Mr Sowell could have shot down many of his points in these articles. Reading these articles almost made me put down the book. How could a man writing this much tripe put aside this dishonesty and idiocy on display and write something worth reading?

    Which brings me to the current work. This is actually an excellent book. While it suffers from repetition, and the writing style is a bit like that of a textbook, this was a good read. This man, who obviously has such a strong bias towards a "conservative" or "constrained" vision that his columns would reek of, 'lying for the cause', actually wrote an even-handed assessment of the two visions. While if I paid attention hard enough I could see a bias towards the constrained vision manifested as increased eloquence when his pet vision was discussed, this was quite small or perhaps my imagination.

    This book really allowed me to understand and even find common ground with people who are conservative or have a "constrained" vision. Often it appeared to me that these people were living in a completely ficticious reality, while it turns out that they just have a different vision of human nature. When conservatives say that allowing gay marriage would destroy traditional marriage, these words sound like a non-sequiter of the nature of the following, "not allowing prayer in schools will cause more mexican immigrants to sneak across the border". But this book actually helped me understand these strange comments and many more. Additionally, I found that it strengthened many of my own convictions by understanding the alternative. On some topics, I believe very strongly in the unconstrained vision as described here but in other ways my differences with those of the constrained vision is only a matter of degrees. I am still shocked that such an interesting and fair book could come out of a man like this. It would be like Rush Limbaugh giving a fair assessment of the differences between the presidencies of Clinton and G.W. Bush.

    The final chapter is the icing on the cake that is missing from our political discourse. He compares knowledge found in natural science to the lack of concrete knowledge found in social science and political discourse. There are answers to some of these political questions that can be deduced empirically, which are too often described as value judgements. Additionally, he describes how some people put up blinders towards changing their vision when new information comes to light. This book has left me open to many ideas and better able to understand the visions of both sides. ...more info
  • One of my favorites
    This is an amazing book. What a great premise. In this book Prof. Sowell argues that the basis of political ideology generally comes from two viewpoints concerning human nature. One, the unrestrained, where man is limitless in his capacity to improve himself and the world, and restrained, where man is forever limited and must rely on reason and caution. Whatever viewpoint one has on human nature naturally is prism for all views on society, issues such as how a government should work, what is real "equality", what is justice ect.

    The best part of this book is it generally is unbiased. Thomas Sowell is a conservative economist who works at a conservative institution. However, in his academic works I continue to notice a deep sense of responsibility in not stacking the cards in his position's favor. Sadly in a world where many intellectuals feel far better trumpeting their pesonal agendas, it is good to know there are some in academia who still favor neutrality....more info
  • Opened My Eyes
    I had just finished reading Michael Dyson's "Is Bill Cosby Right?". Then I read this book of Sowell's. African Americans, including myself, have rejected Sowell out of hand because he does not line up with the orthodoxy of Dyson or the typical civil rights perspective. This is because I did not realize how thoroughly Sowell understands the issues and the philosophies behind it and the opposite views. You just do not realize his grasps on things if you go by what people say or get turned off by one of his articles in the newspaper. Not only does he understand Dyson's position, he opened my eyes to the "other side's" position in a way that made me a believer. Now I know why he says what he says in his other books and they make real sense. I am buying copies of this book for other African Americans I know and am encouraging my young adult children to read it too. If you have never read Sowell, this is the place to start....more info
  • Tough reading, but worth the effort!
    If you want to know why Republicans believe what they do, and why Democrats believe what they do, read this book. Evenhanded (although Sowell is a conservative market capitalist), this work gives you great insight into the variying politics of freedom, equality, and justice ... regardless which side of an issue you're on. Unlike Sowell's weekly editorial columns, which are pretty easy to read, this work is unnecessarily packed with "very large words." Read slow, and keep your dictionary handy, because "Conflict Of Visions" is truly excellent....more info
  • Excellent insight but shaky development and premise
    This book makes a compelling argument. It claims that there is an underlying systematicity to who lies on which sides of arguments of the last 200-300 years of Western political and social theory. He makes (admittedly fluid) categorizations of "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions, which are views on the nature of man. The argument is tremendously illuminating.

    However, there are some severe caveats:

    1. He doesn't consider seriously any social theorists that aren't basically economists (or Marxists, but they don't really accept that there is a social theory independent of an economic theory). For example, he mentions Max Weber only once.

    2. (and this is related to one). He develops hypothetical positions for each of the polarities of visions that he proposes. Because these are polarities, not instances, the positions are caricatures. His caricatures of the unconstrained vision are substantially more shallow and less generous than those of the constrained (where he puts himself).

    Examples of questions that I think he would have trouble with: (a) from the point of view of a constrained vision, why do "social scientific" accounts have descriptive force or descriptive adequacy? (b) From the constrained vision, why is behavior patterned culturally?

    I think that Henry Kissinger hints to a more compelling and complete account of these kinds of phenomena in his Years of Renewal. The fundamental difference is that Kissinger views the contraint as not on human nature but on the human capacity to act. There is only so much that can be achieved, and a person has to establish priorities (which are "trade offs") so that he can act at all. This is a fundamental shift from an ideational perspective to a pragmatic one based in action. Furthermore, this allows things like culture in the door. This is the classic dilemma of Western thought, and especially the specific traditions that economic analysis has developed out of....more info

  • Almost a grand unified theory for current American political thought
    OK, that is an exaggeration, simply because such a beast doesn't exist, but the book is a great tool for understanding much, if not most of today's American political discourse, both high and low. It will provide a great deal of insight not only into what makes your political opponents tick, but what makes you tick, too. ...more info
  • A Tremendous Achievement
    Thomas Sowell begins the book by asking us why the same people seem to be on opposite sides of every issue, even when the issues themselves seem to be unrelated. His thesis is a CONFLICT OF VISIONS. He believes that political thought can be broken into two different camps. With some crossover and a few exceptions, people either subscribe to the constrained vision or the unconstrained vision.

    The constrained vision believes that people have natural flaws and our resources are better spent designing society with those flaws in mind. The unconstrained vision believes that man can be molded and perfected with the right instruction and society should spend their resources to reach that end.

    Sowell does an excellent job in explaining that most current ideas have their origins, at least somewhat, in philosophies that are over 100 years old. My favorite bit is Adam Smith's idea that supposes you were told every person in China was killed. Smith argues that you might feel immediate surprise and maybe even some faint remorse, but it would be nothing compared to the worry you'd feel if you'd lost end of your little finger. Smith's idea is that it's neither good nor bad that man is self-interested, but that societies would be much more productive if they recognized that truth, and worked with it, instead of spending their resources trying to change man's nature, which Smith believed was impossible.

    You won't soon forget this work....more info

  • Best Book You Can Read on Idealogy
    Mr Sowell had produced a masterpiece. He avoids buzz words and changes the words liberal and conservative to neutral terms. He then closely examines the foundational differences between the two opposing philosophies. Mr Sowell manages to do all of this in understandable terms.

    What makes A Conflict of Visions so good is the author exposes the major unstated assumptions made by each side. He does not criticise either position, he just sets out to explain the deepest roots of each position and trace it to the modern world. The author never makes a judgemental statement. Philosophy doesn't get any better than this.

    If anyone is trying to understand political philosophy, or modern politics this is a must read. Mr. Sowell tells the reader how the same terms (what is fair for example) are thought of in totally different ways by the differing positions. This is why the opposing sides talk past one another. They both use the same terms but never define them - they just assume the other side means the same thing by fairness (or whatever) as they do, when in fact the meaning of what is fair differ completely from the points of view of the philosophies.

    One quick example: When side A says something is fair they mean the system was fair and all people had the same basic chance; however, when side B says something is fair they mean the RESULTS were fair. Side A doesn't mind if the results seem unfair as long as the system was fair, but even if side B thinks the system was fair, if the results are unfair (in their mind) then the whole thing is unfair and must be adjusted.

    Thus, when one group of people are poor and another rich side A is OK with that as long as the system for getting poor or rich was basically fair; however, side B feels that if the finances are unequally distributed then it is unfair because the RESULTS are unfair.

    So when the A side is arguing with the B side and both are yelling about fairness they see fairness in totally different ways and are arguing past one another.

    A wonderful book, at a good price. Buy it!...more info
  • More Genius from an Immortal Genius
    It's unfortunate that we only have a 1 to 5 star system here for ratings because Thomas Sowell deserves better than that. If we had 100 stars I'd give him 99 for everything I've read by him. This is the fourth book I've consumed by this great master of economics and with every page he becomes more and more of a legend. A Conflict of Visions is a perfect counterpart to The Vision of the Anointed. Conflict is a more philosophical book and I preferred Anointed for that reason (which I'd give a 100 out of 100) as more current examples are fleshed out. Neither one though is really a political book. They are much more psychological and philosophical than anything else. With Sowell, you uncover the way human beings actually are and what greater gift can a writer give than that kind of enlightenment? I cannot think of one. I do agree with another reviewer about the language, however. Unconstrained and constrained are not the best of terms but you'll understand the dichotomy between them clearly by the time you've finished. Incidentally, NR had a five part interview with Sowell concerning this book last week which occasioned my pulling it out and finishing it over the weekend. Basically, with any of the Sowell books you can't go wrong. Race and Culture is next on my list. ...more info
  • A Tremendous Achievement
    Thomas Sowell begins the book by asking us why the same people seem to be on opposite sides of every issue, even when the issues themselves seem to be unrelated. His thesis is a CONFLICT OF VISIONS. He believes that political thought can be broken into two different camps. With some crossover and a few exceptions, people either subscribe to the constrained vision or the unconstrained vision.

    The constrained vision believes that people have natural flaws and our resources are better spent designing society with those flaws in mind. The unconstrained vision believes that man can be molded and perfected with the right instruction and society should spend their resources to reach that end.

    Sowell does an excellent job in explaining that most current ideas have their origins, at least somewhat, in philosophies that are over 100 years old. My favorite bit is Adam Smith's idea that supposes you were told every person in China was killed. Smith argues that you might feel immediate surprise and maybe even some faint remorse, but it would be nothing compared to the worry you'd feel if you'd lost end of your little finger. Smith's idea is that it's neither good nor bad that man is self-interested, but that societies would be much more productive if they recognized that truth, and worked with it, instead of spending their resources trying to change man's nature, which Smith believed was impossible.

    You won't soon forget this work....more info

  • Insightful look at the war of ideas...
    This is an insightful look by the renowned conservative historian and economist at George Mason University, Thomas Sowell. It probes the on-going cultural war of ideas between the Left and Right. I also recommend the Vision of the Annointed by Sowell and Intellectuals by Paul Johnson....more info
  • The good is enemy of the best
    Dr. Sowell wrote an amazing book, that deeply impressed me since the first page I read, attaining a level that I only knew previously in Karl Popper, Friederich Hayek and, perhaps, Murray Rothbard.

    The author depicts the main characteristics of the two antagonic ideological visions that, at least since the 18th century, fight each other in the western world's political arena, not unusually at a very hot level - the constrained vision (or the right / conservative) and the unconstrained vision (or the left / liberal), being himself, as it is widely known, an obvious follower of the constrained vision.

    Summing up the finely erudite analysis of dr. Sowell, we can conclude that, contrarily to the unconstrained vision, the constrained one prefers common sense to emotion, reality to utopia, the best world possible to the ideal world, the real man of ever to the new man, and reformation to revolution, resulting that differences from the way each one faces that same man: the constrained looks him as an imperfect and decayed creature, with unchangeable vices and tendencies, so, to her, the most effective policy that can be taken is the one that tries to conciliate such a nature with common social good, puting the first working for the profit of the second; inversely, the unconstrained, facing man as a small god, believing blindly in the unlimited capacities of reason and in the complete maleability of man's characther, intends to built, in her most radical version, paradise on earth, but, despising simple truths about human nature, only reachs...hell.

    This a superb book that I highly recommend to everybody, specially persons from the conservative and non-political correct family....more info

  • Sowell goes straight to the roots of ideological conflict
    Why do the supposedly "intolerant" seem more tolerant of disagreement than the "tolerant"? From the time I began to think critically about politics, I was puzzled by the different ways in which people of the left and right saw each other. When I argued with a conservative, I was always treated with civility by my opponent; we could agree to disagree about a given topic, and then go on to something else. But when I argued with a liberal, I often would be personally criticized for my lack of compassion. Since my intentions were good regardless of the side of the debate that I was on, I couldn't figure out why one side saw me as misguided, but the other saw me as mean and unfeeling -- or, to put it another way, why those on the left, who preached "tolerance," seemed so intolerant of disagreement.

    Dr. Sowell's book was a revelation. It seems that this civility gap, as I like to call it, is quite old. It stems from the "conflict of visions" for which the book is named. People of the "constrained" vision see limits to what human beings -- and particularly government -- can accomplish. Hence they do not try to solve every problem for every person. They see attempts to solve unsolvable problems as idealistic and misguided, but in no way evil. People of the "unconstrained" vision, on the other hand, believe that all problems can be solved if everyone is virtuous enough. So they see people of the "constrained" vision -- who seem to them unwilling even to try -- as lacking in virtue.

    To show just how old this conflict is and how it has not changed in many generations, Dr. Sowell presents a debate between some leading thinkers of the late 18th century. Dr. Sowell researches and writes like a genuine scholar as opposed to a political pundit, and although from his other books we know where his heart lies, in "A Conflict Of Visions" he is careful to present the debate in a balanced fashion. After you read "A Conflict Of Visions," what you see on TV and in the newspaper will make more sense than before. Enjoy....more info

  • Shallow, Reductionist, Simplistic
    I am at a loss of words about how troubling I find this book and the ideas conveyed herein. First, Sowell in this book promises to construct and teach to the reader a simple mental device that allows the reader to reduce a vast, nuanced, complex world of ideas to a single, binary heuristic device that is simple enough that a precocious 12 year old could learn it. This is the academic political theory equivalent of watching Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck on television. This is a book about how to learn to see the world in black and white, us and them, liberal and conservative, utopian and tragic. It gives the reader a set of simple tools that are powerful in that they can be applied to most of history and political and social theory. It is a reductionist dualism that is at the heart of contemporary Republican politics in the United States of America and that defines the zeitgeist of the post-1994 Republican Party in American politics. If you like your political theory sophisticated and intelligent, you will be disappointed in this. But if you want to learn tricks for winning shouting matches defending Republican talking points on blogs and internet political message boards, this book will be a powerful tool in your belt....more info
  • Thought provoking work from a world class mind
    This is one of those rare books that long after you're done reading it, you keep reflecting on as you think about issues, hear arguments, read about contemporary topics and respond to points raised by those with whom you disagree. It is also a fresh insight into the shear breadth of range of Thomas Sowell, the man. I have given copies of the book to friends and family, of both liberal and conservative persuasions. The book does much to iluminate foundations of how our own perspectives are shaped as well as those who see the world differently. Sowell also does a fine job of keeping his own views out of the book. He lays out both perspectives in a clear and unbiased way.

    I recommend it thoroughly to anyone who wants to have a stronger basis for his or her own views and wants to better understand the perspective of others....more info

  • A superb book, within its prescribed limits
    This is a superb book, but one that sets limits for itself. Its purpose is to delineate the visions which undergird the political impulses of the major political parties. It argues that the disparate visions are traceable to disparate beliefs regarding human nature. The 'constrained' vision can be traced to thinkers such as Hobbes, Burke and Adam Smith, the 'unconstrained' vision to thinkers such as Godwin, Condorcet and Rousseau. The consistency of the respective visions and the degree to which they cover a multiplicity of current issues is striking. It is almost as if some are born with one vision, others with another. Sowell acknowledges that some individuals have changed their visions, but often under 'road to Damascus' circumstances. Some have been persuaded by empirical evidence, though it is a truism (one reinforced here) that the respective visions are often resistant to evidence.

    The book is scrupulously objective in its goals. The book is analytic and descriptive, not polemical. Sowell goes out of his way to avoid choosing sides or offering compelling evidence for the inconsistency or absurdity of either of the visions. He is not recruiting readers to one side or the other. He is constructing two complex mirrors in which his readers can attempt to see themselves and the degree to which their individual views are part of a large, centuries-old pattern.

    My own sense is that he's got this right and he's used the best examples, though I might have added a touch more Rousseau to the mix. The objective analysis, however, comes with a price. In resisting the impulse to take sides and adduce evidence justifying the taking of sides he has written a book which is more theoretical/historical than historical/theoretical. In short, the want of copious examples is often felt. Also, the fact that Sowell is such an effective polemicist (when he is writing in that mode) makes one regret that he is here purposely confining and restraining himself. Nevertheless, the book is excellent and does exactly what it sets out to do--fairly, clearly and persuasively.

    For those with an interest in human nature (or its alleged nonexistence), one can also highly recommend Pinker's The Blank Slate, a nice companion volume to Sowell's and one that is less constrained in its arguments....more info